Vanessa Bowman paints the world around her: the 19th-century village church, her back garden, the leaves on the trees in the fields where she walks her dog.
Once she has chosen a scene from her rural Dorset idyll, she puts brush to canvas, sometimes poring over the details for days in her studio.
Over three decades she has honed a unique style and earned a loyal fanbase, with 20,000 followers on Instagram and commissions from House & Garden, Prince Charles’s Highgrove shop and Farrow & Ball.
But when she received an email from a fan in Canada, asking whether she was collaborating with online fashion firm Shein, she was baffled.
The £17 jumper in the image attached to the email had a picture printed on it that was unmistakably hers. But Bowman had not partnered with the multibillion dollar Chinese clothing behemoth. Instead, she alleges it plastered her picture on its product without ever getting in touch.
“They didn’t remotely bother trying to change anything,” she said. “The things I paint are my garden and my little village: it’s my life. And they’ve just taken my world to China and whacked it on an acrylic jumper.”
While copyright infringement is far from new, Bowman’s experience is part of a wider trend.
The oil painter, 51, is the latest member of a fast-growing club of artists and designers who claim their work has been stolen by Shein.
Launched in Nanjing in 2008, and based in Singapore, the world’s biggest online fashion firm has a murky ethical track record, including on the environment and workers’ rights.
But despite its reputation, it has thrived, gaining almost cult-like status among teenage fans drawn to its constantly updated product range and ultra-low prices.
On TikTok alone, videos showing customers unpacking orders with dozens of items, labelled with the hashtag #SheinHaul, have racked up more than 4.5 billion views.
As its customer base has grown, so too has the list of alleged copyright breaches.
Dozens of people have posted about their designs being stolen online, sometimes using the slogan #ShameOnShein. One illustrator, who claimed to have their skeleton artwork lifted, tweeted: “Shein stole my art and slapped it on a phone case, not sure if I should be flattered or mad.”
Another UK-based artist said she had spent “hours creating new and fresh designs” and felt “a little bit of a sick feeling” when a fan told her that her frog artwork had been used on stickers sold on Shein. “I really don’t want to be associated with them at all,” she wrote.
Some companies who claim to have had their designs copied have taken legal action, including Dr Martens and Levi Strauss. But, for many independent designers and artists, the time and energy involved with pursuing a complaint is too great to face.
Aside from posting on social media, Bowman thought her chance of success was so slim it was not worth spending more time agonising over. “I was really angry that somebody could just take something I’ve worked so hard to produce. They obviously don’t care,” she said. “But all I want to do is paint in my studio; I don’t want to get involved with lawyers and could feel myself getting really stressed. It was a bit David and Goliath and I was completely overwhelmed.”
For those who do choose to take on the firm, it can often be a losing battle.
Elora Pautrat, 26, an illustrator and digital artist based in Edinburgh, sent a stern email to Shein after a fan messaged her on Instagram to tell her one of her ethereal purple cityscapes was being used on a mousemat. “They didn’t have my authorisation and never asked me anything,” she said.
At first she didn’t receive a reply. But when she posted her complaint on social media, Shein – a rival to Asos, Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing – wrote back and apologised. After an exchange, Pautrat was paid some money from the sales of the product and promised it would never happen again. But since that first incident, in 2020, she claims the company has lifted her work on about 10 further occasions and used it on products including stickers and prints.
Each time, she patiently writes to the copyright infringement team and calls them out on social media. But a few months later, it happens again.
“It’s frustrating because they do have power and resources to make proper collaborations with artists and still make a lot of money out of it,” said Pautrat, who says the latest alleged violation was in January. “But they just keep stealing for some reason, which just isn’t fair.”
William Miles, an intellectual property lawyer and partner at Briffa, a specialist art law firm, said the problem of designs being lifted was becoming “ever more prevalent” in the fast fashion sector.
His firm is seeing two or three infringement cases per month. “The fundamental issue, I think, is that fashion companies are under pressure to produce large volumes of new and fashionable goods, so their designers often go for the quick fix,” he said.
“A change that has happened is that these things often aren’t dealt with by the court: they’re dealt with by the court of public opinion,” he added. “The person puts side-by-side pictures on social media, everyone gets really angry, and it looks bad for the fast fashion label. But some seem to have slightly thicker skin than others.”
The Artists’ Union, which represents more than 500 members in England, called for regulatory action to hold repeat offenders to account.
Zita Holbourne, the organisation’s national chair, said it was “constantly representing artists in these kinds of cases. This is about companies trying to exploit art for their own benefit and profit without a thought for the rights of those artists. They need to be exposed, challenged and named and shamed,” she said.
Shein said it “respects designers and artists, and the intellectual property rights of others”, and takes “all claims of infringement seriously”.
“When legitimate complaints are raised by valid IP rights holders, Shein promptly addresses the situation,” it said.
It added that suppliers were required to certify that their products did not infringe the intellectual property of third parties, with “appropriate action” taken when “non-compliance is found”.